Sunday, March 20, 2005
How To Succeed In Law School? My Personal View.
I recently received the following email:
I know that there isn't a "secret" to doing well in law school but I ran into a 2L at a bar and he said that you have to figure out the "game" and once you do that, you will do well. He didn't elaborate, do you know what he means?

I only have about two months before I leave to Europe and want to do some reading to get me prepped for law school. If I could only read two books before law school which ones would you recommend?

Also, do you have any insider tips for succeeding at the U of M[innesota] Law School?
Here is my (long-winded) response:

CLASS:

Well it is not really a game, it is just that in class professors often like to talk about policy issues surrounding the law, such as whether the particular law or rule is a good one or not, etc. This is not surprising, the whole purpose of class is really to think about the law in a scholarly and academic fashion since everyone in law school can learn the black letter law for themselves in a very short period of time. So really I personally think you need to consider class as an enjoyable intellectual pursuit - and one that is very valuable to both your law school and legal career - but at the same time as wholly separate from grading and the test taking process (unless of course class performance affects your grade - which was rare in my personal experience).

Some professors choose to "hide the ball" in class too, i.e., only give you a bit of information or throw out a rule that has been rejected by the courts and see if you can figure out why it was rejected. This is almost always the case in tort classes (personally one of my more enjoyable classes - I was taught by Professor Weissbrodt who also teaches an excellent international human rights course). Some are critical of this style, but I don't really think of it as a poor style at all.

Rather I think it can be misused by some professors to try to assert superiority over the students, but this is fortunately very rare - and something I never personally experienced. When used effectively, it is a great learning tool. For example, I think Professor Weissbrodt used it in a very effective manner, and again, it was one of my personally more enjoyable classes.

One of the things you need to keep in mind is that it is okay to be wrong or disagree with the professor. Obviously you should be respectful, but I think professors actually enjoy it when students challenge them about the law or the discussion. Most of the time, again in my personal experience, the students would be very nervous and submissive about responding to any questions. This goes to a larger point, you and your peers are all very intelligent or you wouldn't be there at all, so you should take comfort in that even when you have a day (or week) where you feel lost about the subject matter. That will happen to everyone at one point or another, even those that will end up at the top of the class.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) your professor assignments your first year are random based on the section you are assigned too. My section was very lucky with one notable exception, and I think we had excellent professors overall. Once you find out who you have been assigned, feel free to email me (or email me about anything else too), and I will give you any insights I have. I think there has been some fairly large turnover in recent years, so I may be unfamiliar with some, or perhaps many, of your first year professors. But I will give you any information I can.

TESTS:

As far as tests, my answer below is only discussing essay tests, which most likely will be the format for the vast majority of the tests you encounter. Especially in the first year, which is really the key to success anyway.

The vast majority of the time the key to success is just to logically and intelligently spot the issues and analyze them using the black letter law. Most of the time the professors do not want you to regurgitate those issues discussed in class, other than to the extent it directly impacts on the analysis of the issues at hand. Of course adding these type of discussions on top of very strong logical analysis probably is a decisive factor between an "A" or an "A -" result and an "A +." This is anonymous so I suppose I am not bragging, but I personally was pretty successful - especially in my first year - and received several "A"s but only one "A +" during my entire law school career. I suspect (besides the curve, which in the first year almost eliminates any "A+" scores in most classes) the reason for this was that I generally just did a strong job of analyzing the black letter law and spotting the issues, and rarely (if ever) went beyond that. In my conversations with the 2 or 3 students that graduated at the top of my class, not only was it apparent that they were much more intelligent than me, but it was also apparent that their analysis would usually go beyond mine in test responses.

The way I like to think about it, is that your test answers should be written as if you were a lawyer analyzing the issue: point out the strengths and weaknesses to both sides of the issues as logically, intelligent, and concisely as possible.

Generally the ultimate conclusion you reach is completely irrelevant. The whole point of the question is that there are strong points on both sides or otherwise there would not be much to talk about. So the question will be a very "gray" one and not "black and white."

So in short, that is really the key, just be as precise and logical as possible in your answers. By precise I do not mean short, I often wrote a dozen pages or more in total in answers to 3 hour essay tests. And I believe I neared 30 pages in my torts answer (typewritten pages), and I could have written many more if there was time (I suspect my analysis was a bit flabby and my answer probably should have been shorter in this class - although I still received a fairly high score). The questions in that class were designed that way, there were literally dozens of issues. And even outside of torts, there will usually be plenty of issues for you to analyze in such a short time. You should obviously start with the most important issues and work your way into the minutiae if you have time.

The only real secret I have, and this may be outdated now, is that in my day (way back when in the early 2000s...) you could handwrite your answers in blue books (90% or more of the students chose this option), or use a typewriter. They began phasing in the use of laptops at the end of my law school career - perhaps laptops are now used universally for answering tests. If you have a choice, ALWAYS use a laptop or typewriter. No matter how good your penmanship may be (mine is terrible), I can guarantee that a professor will be in a better mood grading your typed answers than your handwritten ones - and that will almost always benefit you if you are between grades. I personally felt I got a 1 point boost just from this, but obviously that is pure supposition on my part.

BOOKS:

As you noted, there are literally hundreds of books you could read. I have 3 recommendations, 2 that I think you will find enjoyable and that I feel will be helpful more generally for your law school experience, and one for test taking. The two for general purposes are: The Bramble Bush by Karl Llewellyn, and 1L by Scott Turow. I am torn on recommending 1L for you prior to law school though. I cannot recall when I first read it. If you choose to read 1L prior to law school you should take it with a large grain of salt. Since it is about Harvard Law School it is by definition an extreme example of the law school experience. My experience was very different from the experience of Turow in 1L. But that said, I did find things I could relate too, and so I think it is helpful from that standpoint. One example is the anxiety that everyone experiences about the testing process.

Bramble Bush I just really enjoyed. I read it prior to law school and then again after my first year and the second reading (to me) really showed just how much my perspective was changed by that first year. And I really enjoyed this book (having read it before law school) on the second read after my first year of law school. (Or now that I think of it, I may have reread it after the first semester).

In the general category, I would also throw out a movie - The Paperchase (it is probably not available on DVD, I could only find it on VHS back when I purchased it). Again this movie is about Harvard Law School and is a fairly extreme story, but I think the ultimate point of the movie is that no matter what you will be fine. People stress out about testing way too much. I personally think one of the reasons I was successful is that I am personally fairly laid back about test results. I try my best and let the cards fall where they may. I think your performance will be better if you can try to have this type of attitude - enjoy the intellectual challenge of the test - don't stress about the results.

Finally, the test guide that I would recommend would be "Getting to Maybe." This is a book that was recommended by law professors that I respect, and even by a law professor who stated she had refused to ever recommend a test taking guide prior to this one. I have only skimmed it, but it seemed like a good resource to me too.

Sorry for the delayed response, and also for the length. I hope you find it somewhat helpful. And again, feel free to send me emails whenever and about whatever. Law School is obviously stressful and important, but I think you will find you are more successful if you try to enjoy the experience and worry less about test results. I know that was the way I approached it, and I enjoyed my experience. And I didn't do too badly either.

Update 1: If you read this far you deserve a medal! I received some feedback from a law professor that I really admire who notes that in her class my advice would be a mistake as her tests are largely based on her class discussions. She also makes a very good point that engaging in discussion in class helps you learn the material. This raises a larger issue, I tend to be a do-it-yourselfer when it comes to learning. So while I really enjoyed law classes, I suppose I never thought of them as being something that I actually needed to be successful. This is obviously not true for other people with differing learning styles. So my advice should also be read with that caveat.
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I am an attorney in Chicago. Politically speaking, I am an indepedent that tends to lean conservative on fiscal issues and progressive on social issues. I try to remain as unbiased and open-minded as possible. Please email or post any comments, and especially criticisms. If something I say is wrong, or you disagree - let me know about it!



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